KtK’s open letter: Sexual violence as a weapon of mass destruction

UN member states have completely failed to protect women in conflict epicentres from violence and torture, likewise to involve women in peacebuilding processes. Despite a year having passed since the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1820 on sexualised violence in conflicts, the world looks on aghast as the brutal mass rape of women once again raises its ugly head in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.Instead of protecting the civilian population, the UN contributes to the exploitation of women. It is a known fact that people in the UN mission, MONUC, in east Congo exploit prostituted women. This was revealed amid great scandal in 2004, but despite this, and despite the UN having adopted a zero tolerance stance on sexual exploitation, nothing appears to have changed in practice. Similar reports are coming from as good as all conflict epicentres. In the Balkans the demand for women’s bodies from international staff helped underpin organised crime and to spread corruption.

This double morality and lack of concerted action is based on an archaic patriarchal view that men own the right to women’s bodies. Thus, the notion that violence against women is an unfortunate but unavoidable side effect of conflict lives on. When it comes to practical politics the male power elite regard women’s rights as secondary. Politicians and decision-makers are evidently unable, or reluctant, to see women’s rights as an integral part of the security policy analysis. Sexualised violence challenges the traditional definition of a security threat and is not captured in the security analyst’s radar. This is not only a betrayal of half the world’s population, it also paves the way for inadequate decisions and priorities governing international peace and security.

The international community had a rude awakening during the Balkan and Rwandan wars when the systematic abuse of women first became conspicuous as a weapon for ethnic cleansing. The war years of the 1990s led to increased awareness and condemnation of sexualised violence in conflict. In a statute from 1998, the International Criminal Court lays down that sexualised violence constitutes a war crime and a crime against humanity. In 2002 the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security, followed in June last year with Resolution 1820, which condemns the use of rape and other forms of sexualised violence, maintaining that this type of violence is a threat to international peace and security. These resolutions are the cornerstones in the struggle for women’s rights. But there is a problem; the words have not yet been put into concrete actions by world nations.

Mass rape is on the rise again in east Congo. The systematic violence against women during conflicts is an effective and cheap weapon of mass destruction. The rapes keep entire communities hostage and are used to control, humiliate and intimidate the enemy. We witness how the violent rape culture tears apart the fabric of society and how it propagates and spills over into civilian society. An increasing number of women and children are raped by somebody in their environs. Today there are no safe havens for Congolese women. By governing over women’s bodies and wombs the enemy gains control of reproduction and sows division. Family affinity and social networks dissolve when family members and neighbours are forced to see wives and mothers raped, or when parents are forced to see their daughters raped or kidnapped as sex slaves. It leads to the destabilisation of entire communities and greatly increases the violence levels. We saw the same patterns in the Balkans. During the 2000s, alarming reports on sexualised violence have emerged from different parts of the world, Colombia, Sierra Leone and Sudan for example.The situation is acute and strong political initiatives are required if Resolution 1820 is to prove more than just a paper tiger. As next EU presidency country, Sweden has a strong voice. This is an opportunity for Sweden to take up the cudgels for women’s rights. The following measures could help pave the way:

Reallocate the resources in ongoing peace promoting initiatives to switch the focus to protecting women and girls where they are most vulnerable, for instance, in internally displaced refugee camps where they collect firewood and fetch water near road blocks.

Support national initiatives to bring legal action against sexualised violence as a war crime. This requires support for reforming legal systems. Internationally, orders that encourage or permit the use of rape as a war tactic should be monitored more effectively.

Greatly increased resources to sexual and reproductive health care to enable survivors of sexualised violence to receive the care they are entitled to.

The heads of UN missions must be held responsible for breaching the UN’s own zero tolerance policy on sexual exploitation. UN missions must have an equal gender division and all staff educated in women’s human rights and UN codes of behaviour.

Local women’s organisations play a crucial role in empowering women’s self-esteem and promoting human rights. According to the UN special rapporteurs for human rights defenders, women activists are particularly vulnerable. They need increased support and political acknowledgement.

The world’s women can wait no longer. We demand action of our political leaders. Gordon Brown, Hu Jintao, Dmitry Medvedev, Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy, what do you plan to do?

Lena Ag, President of the Kvinna till Kvinna Foundation, Sweden
Dr Denis Mukwege, Chief Surgeon at the Panzi Hospital in Bukavo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, awarded the United Nations Human Rights Prize and the 2008 Olof Palme Prize
Maja Mamula, Women’s Room, Croatia
Mira Vilušić, Horizonti, Tuzla
Berijana Ačkar, Center for Legal Asistance, Zenica